Ranking the Best 2021 College Football Coaching Hires so Far

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 22, 2021

Ranking the Best 2021 College Football Coaching Hires so Far

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    There has never been a more wacky "silly season" than what college football experienced this year.

    So much money has been thrown around that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing had to be working overtime pushing out the dollar bills just to keep up.

    Some of the nation's proudest programs, such as Notre Dame, USC, LSU and Oklahoma, took a spin on the coaching carousel, and we're left with an uncertain landscape, with the NIL policy and transfer portal dominating the future of the sport.

    Loyalty is long a thing of the past, and it's now a matter of dollar signs across the country, when it comes to coaches and players. 

    So, which teams survived the fallout the best? Who has tons of question marks? Using resume, ceiling, recruiting acumen and program "fit," let's rank the coaching hires so far.

16-28. All Other Hires

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    28. Jon Sumrall, Troy: He was a great position coach at Kentucky, but with just one year as co-defensive coordinator for the Wildcats, his resume seems thin. His time at Troy as assistant head coach under Neal Brown was a big deal here.

    27. Michael Desormeaux, Louisiana-Lafayette: This is a "safe" hire for a team that clearly desired continuity. The co-offensive coordinator under Billy Napier could wind up being a terrific head coach. As a former quarterback, he knows Lafayette well. Can he run his own program?

    26. Ken Wilson, Nevada: Wilson served his time during three decades as an assistant, and after leaving the Wolf Pack to go to Washington State and then Oregon, he's back in the place he spent 19 years as an assistant. Familiarity, again, was key.

    25. Don Brown, UMass: The longtime assistant known recently for his defenses at Michigan before going to Arizona in 2021, Brown gets another chance. The 66-year-old returns to the school where he led the Minutemen to the best five-year record in school history, 43–19, from 2004 to 2008.

    24. Jerry Kill, New Mexico State: Kill was a successful coach at Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota before health problems caused his retirement in 2015. After stints as assistant head coach at Virginia Tech and TCU, he gets to run a team again.

    23. Mike MacIntyre, Florida International: The one-time Colorado head coach had some strong years in Boulder before getting fired. He's recently been a defensive coordinator at Memphis.

    22. Stan Drayton, Temple: After serving the past five years as associate head coach at Texas, the long-time position coach gets his first chance to run his own program with the Owls, who have had a difficult run following Geoff Collins' 2018 departure. It's great to see a good coach and strong recruiter like Drayton get a shot.

    21. Joe Moorhead, Akron: Moorhead has experienced successful stints as an offensive coordinator for Penn State and Oregon, sandwiched around a failed head coaching gig at Mississippi State. He heads to the MAC to try to rebuild the Zips.

    20. Jim Mora, UConn: Mora has spent the past few years in the college football studio, but people tend to forget he had some strong years with UCLA before things fell apart. Now, he inherits the mess at UConn and brings name recognition to the program.

    19. Clay Helton, Georgia Southern: Things didn't work out for Helton at USC where the spotlight was bright, but he inherits a proud program in Statesboro that has fallen on tough times. He should do well on a lower level with his recruiting and offensive acumen.

    18. Mike Elko, Duke: The biggest part of Texas A&M's turnaround under Jimbo Fisher can be credited to Elko's defenses, which have been strong since he left Notre Dame to join the Aggies in 2018. This is his first chance at leading a program, and the Blue Devils have a long way to go.

    17. Rhett Lashlee, SMU: Lashlee has been successful in offensive coordinator stints at Auburn, SMU and Miami. Now, he returns to SMU, where he built a good reputation and helped develop his scheme. Can he recruit Dallas as well as Sonny Dykes did?

    16. Sonny Cumbie, Louisiana Tech: After serving as the interim head coach at Texas Tech following Matt Wells' firing, Cumbie will run Louisiana Tech. He's authored successful offenses with the Red Raiders and TCU Horned Frogs, and his scheme will be wide-open in Ruston.

15. Jake Dickert, Washington State Cougars

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    There's plenty to be said about familiarity, but a quick glimpse of success might be the right call for the Washington State Cougars at head coach.

    Following Mike Leach's roaring tenure in Pullman, the Cougs tabbed Nick Rolovich to be the head coach. While his teams performed admirably on the field, his refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19 led to his in-season firing last year.

    So, following a 3-2 finish under interim Jake Dickert, the Cougs simply removed the "interim" tag. It didn't hurt that the former defensive coordinator's squad dominated rival Washington in the Apple Cup to end a seven-year skid.

    According to the team's site, "under Dickert's leadership, the Cougars have seen increases in scoring (+6.5 ppg), rushing yards (+44.7 ypg) and total offense (+36.4 ypg), while allowing fewer points (-3.5 ppg), passing yards (-46.0 ypg) and opponents' total offense (-30.7 ypg)."

    Those are impressive numbers, but Pullman is a tough spot to recruit players. Several uncertainties make this hire a gamble, but it's not a place that likely will pull who some would consider a "big-name" coach. 

14. Brent Pry, Virginia Tech Hokies

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    It was always a dream of Brent Pry's to play at Virginia Tech, as he went to high school an hour away.

    Now, he's got a golden opportunity to lead a team desperate to recapture the form that made the Hokies one of college football's proudest programs under Frank Beamer.

    The defensive savant has spent the past several seasons as the architect for some brilliant units at Penn State under James Franklin, where he not only has produced elite playmakers but also groups that have grown and thrived on the field.

    This is his first shot at leading a program, and the longtime assistant returns to Blacksburg after serving as a graduate assistant under Beamer from 1995 to 1997. There's no question he knows how to build a defense—he also cut his teeth under legendary Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster.

    But can he build his own program from the ground up? It helps that he is familiar with the area, and he's a great recruiter and developer of talent. If everything comes together, it could be a match made in heaven.

    There are just too many unknowns to put Pry higher.

13. Joey McGuire, Texas Tech Red Raiders

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    Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, and Texas Tech hit a grand slam in that capacity when it hired Joey McGuire.

    The legendary Lone Star State head coach led Crowley and Cedar Hill High Schools to powerhouse status, and he knows the prep landscape in the fertile Texas grounds better than anybody. After serving as associate head coach under Dave Aranda at Baylor, he gets a big opportunity.

    But college football isn't high school football. Other programs such as UNLV (which hired Bishop Gorman head coach Tony Sanchez in '14 only to fire him after an unsuccessful tenure) learned the hard way.

    McGuire brings tons of unknowns, but he already has experienced some recruiting successes.

    "It's been incredible," Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt told The Athletic's Sam Khan Jr. of McGuire's brief tenure. "His pace, his energy has elevated [us] in the short time that he's been here."

    McGuire wants to take over Texas, which will be difficult when everybody in the nation recruits there and Texas A&M and Texas are assembling strong classes. But there are more than enough elite players to go around.

    McGuire's success, like everybody's, will be determined by wins and losses. Still, his ceiling is high because of how well he can recruit. 

12. Jeff Tedford, Fresno State Bulldogs

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    Listen: You know what you're getting with Jeff Tedford, and that's an outstanding coach.

    The Fresno State alumnus returns to his alma mater, where he helped put the Bulldogs back on the map from 2017 to 2019. He took a team that won a single game in '16 to winning 10 in 2017 and 12 (and a Mountain West title) in '18 before falling to 4-8 in 2019. Tedford then stepped down for health reasons.

    Former Fresno offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer took over for Tedford when he left and led enough of a resurgence to get plucked for the Washington Huskies head coaching job. Now, Tedford is back.

    He'll produce quality offenses, and he has a great quarterback to continue developing in Jake Haener. There's also no better program fit for somebody who not only knows but also helped build the winning culture.

    The only negative for Tedford, and the reason he's so low on the list, is the question about how much upside he has remaining.

    He is only 60, though, and could coach a few more years. If that's the case, he has the relationships and reputations to thrive in the Valley. 

11. Tony Elliott, Virginia Cavaliers

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    Some of the shine may have worn off Tony Elliott in the past year, but there's still plenty of power left in this spotlight.

    A season ago, the Clemson offensive coordinator had an opportunity to lead Tennessee to try to clean up the mess left behind by Jeremy Pruitt. He declined, and the Vols wound up with Josh Heupel in what has been a positive match.

    Elliott's Tigers fell on rocky times this year without Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Co., as DJ Uiagalelei struggled to muster any consistency. The running game was also sporadic. Clemson did improve on that side of the ball as the year progressed, and Elliott's job opportunities wound up being Virginia and Duke.

    The longtime Dabo disciple chose to lead the 'Hoos, and he'll inherit a strong offense and a program that has experienced some positive performances under Bronco Mendenhall, who retired to focus on family.

    Elliott has plenty of upside. The California native is 42 years old, has been a brilliant recruiter and led national title-winning offenses. He's supremely intelligent and knows how to motivate, which all should be great attributes in running his own program.

    It will be a good match, but he'll need time to build his brand while recruiting to a place with more rigid academic standards than he's used to.

10. Jay Norvell, Colorado State Rams

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    One of the biggest "Say what?" coaching moves has been Nevada's Jay Norvell making what looked like a lateral move to go from the Wolf Pack to fellow Mountain West Conference program Colorado State.

    After all, Nevada has been a much better, more consistent program in recent years.

    But Norvell was the lowest-paid coach in the MWC at Reno, according to ESPN's Kyle Bonagura, which had to play a major role in his leaving. It also shouldn't be discounted that the program Norvell led to a 33-26 record could take a big step back with Carson Strong heading to the NFL. 

    This is a guy who has been an assistant in college and the NFL and thrived in roles at Nebraska, UCLA, Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona State. The 58-year-old's name actually came up for some big jobs such as Washington and Washington State too.

    The separation from Nevada has been a bit messy. Nine players have transferred to play for his Colorado State program as he looks to overhaul everything in Fort Collins.

    "I wouldn't say it's a complete overhaul," Norvell told the Denver Post's Sean Keeler. "But it's significant. Some of the positions [of the current roster] don't reflect what we need to do at all, moving forward."

    Norvell is a huge win for the Rams. He has elite potential and could find his way to the Power Five soon.

9. Kalen DeBoer, Washington Huskies

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    The Washington Huskies need to find a way back to respectability.

    Tabbing Kalen DeBoer to lead the once-proud program that tumbled woefully after replacing Chris Petersen with defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake was a huge first step. The only real question is whether he can recruit at an elite level and keep some of that strong Northwest talent at home.

    Too often, the Huskies watched terrific talent go to Oregon, Ohio State, Michigan and other places.

    Thankfully for the Huskies, DeBoer's coaching chops are considerable. He was a dynamo play-caller with the Fresno State Bulldogs and thrived under Tom Allen at Indiana.

    He took a U-Dub castaway (Jake Haener) and helped mold him into an elite signal-caller this year, and he parlayed all that success into a quality job with the Huskies after going 12-6 with Fresno.

    All that said, the resume still is a bit thin. DeBoer has shown huge potential as a head coach, which gives him the nod over Elliott, Pry and others, but he'll have to recruit well enough to have staying power at a program with a history as rich as Washington's.

    It helps that he has head coaching experience dating back to a three-time NAIA Coach of the Year stint at Sioux Falls, where he went 67-3. The lack of time at any major program is a bit alarming, though.

8. Sonny Dykes, TCU Horned Frogs

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    On one hand, there should be some pause surrounding Sonny Dykes' second foray into the Power Five, especially considering just how hard he plummeted to earth the last time. 

    Dykes took over California in 2013 and led the Golden Bears to just one winning season and featured an atrocious defense through most of his four-year tenure. But he experienced a resurgence at SMU, where he flashed some unexpected recruiting prowess.

    Perhaps his biggest recruiting victory was getting Texas transfer Shane Buechele to SMU, where the quarterback helped turn around the program. Several elite prospects (including 4-star quarterback Preston Stone) elected to stay in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to play for the Mustangs rather than go to Power Five programs.

    All that played a factor in Dykes getting the Horned Frogs job. He gets to recruit the same areas, maintain the same relationships and coach at an established program in the Big 12.

    Plus, Dykes knows Texas. He's the son of legendary Texas Tech head coach Spike Dykes, and he has a lot of familiarity with TCU. "Growing up in Texas, I always knew what this place could be," he told reporters when hired.

    When you combine how prolific Dykes' offense has been with his ability to land top-notch prospects, it could be a terrific match for both parties if he gets the defensive situation fixed.

7. Dan Lanning, Oregon Ducks

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    Dan Lanning is a little like the 16-year-old who has just been handed the keys to a Porsche—it's a bright, shiny gift with a lot of potential, but it could end in disaster.

    Or, as the Oregonian's John Canzano wrote: "…[T]his hire is a gamble. One Oregon must go all-in on now."

    Former head coach Mario Cristobal left the Ducks in healthy shape. Even though they didn't win the Pac-12 this year, they were by far the most talented team in the conference, thanks to Cristobal's relentless recruiting. Now, all those shiny toys go to the 35-year-old former Georgia defensive coordinator.

    Lanning is a relentless recruiter, is enthusiastic and energetic, and is a young guy players relate to. Three years as a defensive coordinator (even overseeing the best unit in the country) seems like a thin resume for someone taking over a program on as firm of footing as Oregon's.

    With Lincoln Riley at USC, the Ducks still need to find a way to lure elite players to Eugene. But running a program is about more than that, and he'll have to stay grounded if things go south.

    This hire has a ton of potential, but Lanning could run that Porsche in the ditch a few times before he finds cruise control.

6. Brent Venables, Oklahoma Sooners

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    There was no more tumultuous late-season situation than in Norman, Oklahoma.

    The proud Oklahoma Sooners watched Lincoln Riley bolt for the bright lights of Hollywood and USC, leaving a perennial playoff team in peril. Players couldn't hit the transfer portal quickly enough, and recruits dropped like December temperatures.

    All this happened amid a swirling coaching churn, and a search that really didn't take long seemed to stretch on forever as rumors ran rampant. Oklahoma was not used to turnover, after all.

    Clemson defensive coordinator and longtime Oklahoma assistant Brent Venables—who'd held the same position under Bob Stoops—landed the job. Very much an Oklahoma man, Venables seems like an ideal fit for the Sooners.

    SI.com's John Hoover wrote a great article where the coach talked about how the past 10 years have humbled him as he's grown in all facets of life.

    This hire may seem underwhelming, but familiarity and local knowledge are huge in recruiting to a place like Oklahoma. Getting Ole Miss offensive coordinator and OU alum Jeff Lebby to lead the offense is a major win, too.

    It's fair to ask if Venables is a career assistant. But there are a lot of things to like about the hire, even if there's uncertainty.

5. Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    The best of the big-time coaching gambles came on a dice-roll at Notre Dame.

    Had the Fighting Irish waited a couple of weeks after Brian Kelly bolted for LSU, they could have looked at Urban Meyer after he was fired during an embarrassing NFL season in Jacksonville. Perhaps if Cincinnati weren't in the College Football Playoff, the Irish could have lured Luke Fickell.

    But the timing wasn't right, and that might be a blessing in disguise.

    Instead, Notre Dame promoted Marcus Freeman, the 35-year-old defensive coordinator who Kelly hired away from Fickell's Bearcats in 2021. He's a brilliant defensive mind, is young enough to relate to players in a huge way and is an elite recruiter.

    He gets the nod over Venables because of his youth and the relationship he already has with the Irish players. Fellow mid-30s Lanning falls a bit behind him because he has to go across the country from Georgia to Oregon.

    Freeman has found a home in South Bend, and a strong recruiting finish in which he secured most of the Irish's No. 7 recruiting class equals a promising start to his tenure. 

    This is a coaching star-in-the-making. 

4. Billy Napier, Florida Gators

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    Billy Napier has been groomed for this.

    The longtime assistant coach cut his teeth under program-builders and legendary coaches Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney. He took what he learned there and went to Louisiana-Lafayette, where he built a Sun Belt powerhouse.

    In a short tenure with the Ragin' Cajuns, the 42-year-old coach compiled a 40-12 record, and he was a hot name for plenty of job openings over the past few seasons. One by one, he declined, talking about how happy he was with his position and biding his time.

    Not only did he do a great job on the field, he also consistently recruited top-tier Sun Belt classes.

    Finally, the right opportunity emerged when the Florida Gators came calling. Things haven't gotten off to a swimming start in Gainesville, as recruits decommitted left and right, and starting quarterback Emory Jones entered the transfer portal.

    This proud program will have to be rebuilt.

    But Napier's meticulous attention to detail and desire to do things his way will profit the Gators in the long run. It won't be particularly easy with Mario Cristobal in Coral Gables and Mike Norvell trying to get things going in Tallahassee, but Florida has a wealth of potential.

3. Brian Kelly, LSU Tigers

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    This is the toughest coaching hire to gauge.

    On one hand, Brian Kelly is an elite coach. From Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati to Notre Dame, he's been a winner and a program builder, compiling a 263-96-2 record. That fact, beyond everything else, is the reason he is so high on this list.

    He got a ton of money to head to the Bayou, and he has the coaching chops to earn every penny. Even at a place with rigid recruiting restrictions such as Notre Dame, Kelly won big.

    But what kind of fit is he in Baton Rouge? The answer, at least so far, seems iffy, at best. 

    From his newly acquired and much-ridiculed Southern accent to an up-and-down recruiting finish that saw him gain some players and lose some, the start has been bumpy. Louisiana is a proud place that embraces tradition and loves its Tigers. Ed Orgeron was a big hit with prospects there because he was from the state.

    Kelly isn't, and this could be a situation where coaches such as Nick Saban (who already has tons of success luring Louisiana prospects to Alabama) poach players. Kelly cannot allow that to happen, or he won't last long facing off with Saban and Jimbo Fisher in the SEC West.

    The decisions he makes in hiring coordinators will be massive, and it was a crucial blow to lose defensive backs coach Corey Raymond to Florida. This hire seems boom-or-bust.

2. Mario Cristobal, Miami Hurricanes

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    One side of the coin says Mario Cristobal's coaching left a little to be desired at Oregon, where he always had good teams but could never get the Ducks to win enough to be among the nation's elite. But he was a relentless recruiter who did as well in that area as any coach in the nation.

    Now, Cristobal heads home to Miami, where he's from and where he played. His family is still there, and he pillaged the area for recruits when he was an assistant at Alabama under Nick Saban.

    Cristobal is a perfect fit for the Hurricanes, which is why they had to make the hire, even though they embarrassingly courted the Ducks coach while they still had Manny Diaz at the helm. Getting Cristobal and Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich in the fold makes them huge winners, though.

    Getting back to being "The U" is important for the 'Canes, who have looked like they could do so for glimpses under Mark Richt and Diaz, only to fall.

    Cristobal will keep elite South Florida talent at home. He immediately makes things difficult on Kirby Smart, Saban and Jimbo Fisher, who have plucked players from that area. He can battle Dabo Swinney for the top spot in the ACC year after year.

    Does the 51-year-old have Kelly's record? No. But he's a favorite son who is still young and has limitless potential in the perfect spot. This one could hit big.

1. Lincoln Riley, USC Trojans

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    When the smoke cleared, the finger-pointing was over and the name-calling died down, the biggest winners of the 2021 coaching carousel were the USC Trojans.

    It's not even that close.

    Not only did the Trojans land the biggest available fish in the pond in Lincoln Riley by tossing out silly money to a coach who likely didn't want to lead the Sooners into the SEC, they did so while the biggest annual Pac-12 power (Oregon) lost its head coach. 

    Riley brings his high-octane attack to Los Angeles at a time when the NIL money could be limitless for the Trojans. He also exudes California cool, has established relationships with Golden State recruits he'd been luring to Oklahoma and enters a Pac-12 conference ripe for the picking.

    USC is starved to be elite again, and Riley inherits the ideal situation. Though Clay Helton's 2020 recruiting class was awful, he put together a strong one in '21, and Riley already has a great start on 2023's class, even though 2022's is slim. Getting 5-star Domani Jackson to sign was a big win, though.

    It's also a sign of things to come, as high schoolers are buying what Riley is selling. He's the perfect coach at the perfect time for USC, and big things await. Does he need time to build his program? Yes. But once he gets there, the Trojans are going to be competing for College Football Playoffs every year.


    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.